SEARCHING for a house, but don’t know how long to search ahead you bid your life away? Going out for dinner along a crowded eat street, and don’t know which restaurant to select? Can’t decide whether your present partner is “the one” or whether you should keep looking?
Luckily there is a real solution to these dilemmas, and if you follow it, the incident is you’ll end up making a better solution and lead a better life.
Mathematically, all these questions are essentially the identical problem.
They involve working out how to stability the wish to keep searching for the “best” choice, when there force something better ahead, which you’ll miss out on if you settle too soon. What is the optimal point at which you should stop looking for something superior?
Quaintly, it was first posed as the “Secretary Problem” in 1949 by mathematician Merrill Flood. How long to keep looking for a secretary before selecting one?
In their recent book, Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian, and Tom Griffiths, say that the Secretary Problem lies at the heart of many present problems, and everyone would benefit from using the maths behind it to inform their decisions.
So what’s the answer to a better life? There are many ways of trying to solve a problem like this, but there is one that consistently yields the best result and it hinges on the principle of “look then leap”.
The solution, it turns out, is to survey the field for a certain percentage of choices, and then, once you’ve reached that point, it’s time to get ready to “leap”.
The next time you see something that’s better than you’ve seen so far and you choose it. If you do that, you consistently make a better choice than another method.
But how much of the field should you look at ahead you jump? The answer is 37%.
Say the eat street you’re planning to dine on is 1000 meters long, you’re best off simply strolling along and looking at the restaurants for the first 370 meters, and then after that, as soon as you see a restaurant that’s better than anything you’ve to see before, take it. It’s the optimal balance between searching and finding.
Same goes for choosing who to marry. If you think of the ages 18-35 as the years when you’ll be looking for a partner, that offer that you should play the field until you’re a bit over 24 years of age, and then after that, as soon as you meet someone who is better, propose to them. Romantic!